Gronkowski wasn’t just agitated or uneasy. He was more than that.
"He was scared," Klecko, a defensive lineman for the New England Patriots from 2003-06, told FOX Sports by phone this week. "It’s funny, you look at a guy like Gronkowski, best tight end in the league when healthy, bar none. This guy is scared of (Bill) Belichick. That’s the truth, just the way things are there.
"We talk about the Patriot Way, which looks a little diminished now after taking a blow or two, but it’s the truth: ‘This is how we do things inside these walls. Media, you’re going to get on board or I’m not going to talk to you.’ "
Fear and the threat of fines will be Belichick’s allies as he and his team prepare to open training camp next week while facing the biggest challenge to the Patriot Way since Belichick took over in 2000.
The players and coaches will field questions (and questions and questions and questions) for the first time since the body of Odin Lloyd was found the week after the completion of minicamp and the team’s spring program. Back then, the biggest distraction was the addition of Tim Tebow. Now, Tebow questions might seemingly be a welcome distraction from the inquiries about Hernandez that are expected from a huge gathering of media — sports and news reporters, alike — that probably won’t disappear after only one day.
FOX Sports polled a few former and current Patriots to get their opinion on what Belichick might tell the players about the Hernandez situation and how to handle the barrage of questions on the issue.
Those players believe it’ll be an annoyance that will have some guys looking for the nearest exit, a la Gronkowski, but likely won’t result in many players speaking out of turn because of Belichick’s reputation as a successful coach, his unquestioned authority inside the building and his penchant for docking players’ pay.
"There are a couple of things Bill always does. He wants to focus on football and it will probably be set up as, ‘Hey, it’s an unfortunate situation but we have training camp to focus on,’" said a former Patriots offensive player, who asked not to be named because he still fears the wrath of Belichick. "Whatever football they can talk about, they’ll talk about."
That’s fine, but the course of an interview is most often determined by the line of questioning. It’s therefore up to the player to say very little or nothing at all, which is easy to say but difficult to do.
"The best way to do it is to only talk about yourself, only about what you can control," said a current Patriots player, who agreed to only briefly address the subject. "Anything else has nothing to do with what you’re there to do."
Klecko said that will be the gist of Belichick’s message on Day 1.
"Yeah, he’ll say, ‘We’re not talking about him. We don’t want to deal with that. He’s gone now.’ I don’t even know if he’ll mention him by name, I really don’t," Klecko said. "Trust me, when I was there, I never had anything like this, thank God, but we had some holdouts. We had Deion Branch holding out and Richard Seymour held out, and it was just like, ‘They’re not here, they’re not helping us win, they’re not helping us get better. Why would we waste time on that?’
"You’re going to see guys like Gronk saying, ‘Stop bringing it up. I’m going to walk out on this interview.’"
Klecko was with the team when linebacker Tedy Bruschi returned after suffering a stroke. He knew when Bruschi was coming back to the team, but the players were under strict orders not to speak about the situation with the media.
One reporter kept asking Klecko if he knew when Bruschi was going to return. A nice guy under normal circumstances, Klecko snapped.
"Look, do you want the playbook, too?" he recalled saying. "You’re going to get me fined or cut. Stop asking me about Tedy. I’m not going to give you anything, dude. I’m not trying to be a jerk, I just can’t talk about it."
If Belichick sees or hears a player talking about a subject that was supposed to be off-limits in the media, that player might face a four-figure fine.
"It’s conduct detrimental to the team," the former offensive player said, laughing at the classification of the violation. "It’s all in the wording."
It’s happened plenty of times in the past and players rarely, if ever, fight those penalties. Why file a grievance to possibly get back a few thousand bucks (the player estimated the fines, the amounts of which are set forth by individual teams, to be in the area of $2,500) when such a move could only further anger Belichick and cost a player his job?
A source who has spoken to former Pats linebacker Adalius Thomas said Thomas believes his openness with the media strained his relationship with Belichick and contributed to his exit from New England, although tardiness and several other run-ins with Belichick contributed.
“I mean, I could have been in the ditch,’’ Thomas told reporters after he was sent home by Belichick for being late for an 8 a.m. meeting. “They really don’t give a damn, honestly. Hey, as long as you ain’t in the meeting, they really don’t give a [expletive]. So, that’s how I feel.’’
Thomas could not be reached for comment for this story. A Patriots spokesman said the organization would have no comment about the team’s strategy for handling the fallout from the Hernandez situation.
Current and former Patriots interviewed agreed any quotes from any players related to the Hernandez situation in the coming weeks will be enough to anger Belichick, who might be looking to make an example of someone.
Former Pats linebacker and special teamer Matt Chatham believes the Patriots cutting Hernandez was in part motivated by a desire to minimize the distraction for the players. By releasing Hernandez, the Patriots might have cost themselves a chance to recoup nearly $10 million in signing-bonus money. But that decision might be worth every penny.
"The legitimate out the team afforded the players by cutting him instead of suspending him or allowing this to sort of play out was to say, ‘Hey, he’s not on our team. We only talk about guys on our team,’" Chatham said. "Murder is a different situation than they’ve had before, but the precedent with this team on all issues in any sort of slice of life has always been, ‘We don’t comment on people who aren’t on our team and things that don’t have to do with the upcoming season.’"
Other teams fine players for public comments as well and yet there’s no locker room as silent and dull as the one in Gillette Stadium. Why is that?
"Because he controls everything there and the guys know it," the player said. "If you cross him once and you’re a good player, you’re even par. Cross him twice and he’s gonna look for a way to get your ass out of there.
"Everyone says (Robert) Kraft is such a good owner, but Bill does all the management. If you’ve been around the team, you know it’s Bill running the team. He makes all the decisions. He might as well be the general manager."
Even when it’s not a controversial topic, Belichick is clear. Former Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker learned that lesson the hard way when he was benched for the start of a playoff game against the New York Jets in 2011 after making some not-so-veiled references to Jets coach Rex Ryan’s foot-fetish videos with his wife.
In addition to the threat of fines and the credibility he’s earned as arguably the best NFL coach of the last 15 years, Belichick is simply a darn good intimidator.
Klecko realized as much after recording 2 1/2 sacks in the first preseason game of his career. It was against the New York Giants, so it was somewhat of a homecoming for the Pennsylvania native and son of former Jets defensive lineman Joe Klecko.
"The NFL is gonna be easy," Dan thought to himself.
Until Belichick came into the locker room, congratulated the team on a good effort in beating the Giants 26-6 but then reminded the rookies they still hadn’t played in a regular-season game so they were not to speak to reporters.
"And he’s looking directly at me the whole time," Klecko said. "I didn’t even shower. I took my pants off, took my wet stuff off and bolted to my car. The next day in film, everybody’s kissing my butt, ‘Great job, great game.’ He pulls up my one play on special teams and goes, ‘Klecko, what the (bleep) is this? Is this how it’s going to be all year? We’ve got a touchdown if not for you.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, I get it.’"
Very few players get special treatment from Belichick — and like Gronkowski, even they know not to cross the coach.
"There will be a few guys that touch upon the Hernandez situation," Klecko said. "There will be Tom (Brady), there will be…"
After a pause, he added, "Shoot, you know what, Tom might be the only exception. If somebody is going to talk about it, it’ll be Brady. Everyone else will be told, ‘Shut your mouth, it has nothing to do with this football team, it has nothing to do with you, we’re worried about the guys in the room right here and we’re worried about winning football games.’"
Said the offensive player, "He’s got five or six guys on the whole team he talks to like that. I’m sure Gronk’s in there. Brady, Gronk and pick your guys on the defense. The rest are serviceable. They’re cannon fodder. In that business, that’s the way it goes."